The Red Widow Murders (book #141)

Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr), 1935.

This is a locked room mystery, the third in the Sir Henry Merrivale series. I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t much like locked room mysteries, mostly because the focus tends to be on the puzzle rather than the character.

The start is good:

When Dr Michael Tairlane boarded the bus that evening in March, it must be confessed that his somewhat elderly pulse was not as quiet as usual. The distinguished holder of the Lyman Mannot chair in English at Harvard was, to be exact, as hopeful as a boy playing pirate.

Hopeful – it might be well to ask himself – of what? Of adventure tapping his arm in a London mist, a shadow on a blind, a voice, a veiled woman? They did not, he thought in his muddled, kindly way, wear veils nowadays. And he was aware that in any adventurous situation outside a book, because of this muddled, kindly way, he would be lost. Yet he reflected he had not done so badly during that business at Bowstring Castle last September. It was the Bowstring affair which had convinced him that the prosaic world had queer, terrifying holes in it; that he, at fifty, had met danger and found it exhilarating. That was why he had left a warm flat at Kensington to-night.

(Not sure why his thought about women no longer wearing veils is “kindly”.)

Sir Henry is an impressive and eccentric figure with aspects of the grotesque: a kind of Nero Wolfe / Gervase Fen combination, with his huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ accent and elements of silly-assery reminiscent of Wimsey.

He is a member of Mycroft Holmes’s Diogenes Club and “the former head of the British Counter-Espionage Service”. The Club has evidently developed from Mycroft’s day when it allowed no talking at all, to allowing talking but only in Latin: “consequently, H.M. said he found it useful for sittin’ and thinkin’ or else merely for sittin'”.

Sir Henry makes pronouncements like “Somethin’s wrong, son. There’s blood somewhere, and maybe death. I’m not star-gazin’; it’s fact. My brain can’t tell me anything, my brain tells me that nothing’s wrong and I’m a wool-gatherin’ ass.” When he finally epiphanises in a shower of random clues and “ho, ho, ho”, Chief Inspector Masters says “I don’t know what you’re thinking, sir … but what I do know is that you see daylight … And, so long as I don’t have to worry, I’m not curious. Unduly”. HM calls the family of the victim and the others concerned together for the classic reveal scene.

There is a romance element, sort of, but it’s barely sketched in and seems like Dickson couldn’t really be bothered.

I think it’s well done for what it is, atmosphere and plot, but can’t get past how unbelievable or unlikeable most of the characters are. There are more positive reviews at the crime segments, Classic Mystery Hunt and 混沌の狭間 (with reservations). These give more details both of the locked room mystery and of the characters. There’s also a review of another Carter Dickson novel, The Skeleton in the Clock at Tor, which mentions TRWM in passing and makes some general points about Dickson’s / Carr’s work.

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